Patt Morrison Asks

The Magic Castle's Milt Larsen: Why humans need magic

Milt Larsen

Milt Larsen, founder of Magic Castle in Hollywood, is seen at his home in Santa Barbara. (Los Angeles Times / March 14, 2013)

Milt Larsen is a master of two kinds of magic. There's the abracadabra kind that his magician parents brought him up on, and the sort he began practicing with his late brother, Bill — the magic of preserving buildings, including the Variety Arts Theater downtown and the Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica. The capper is the Magic Castle. Here, 50 years ago, the Larsens — presto-changeo — turned a banker's home into a members-only clubhouse for grown-up magicians and their fans. Larsen has three cable radio shows (old comedy and even older music), but his passion for magic has made his Castle his home.

So the Magic Castle is going big-time with merchandise spinoffs and such?

We're doing a number of things — a feature motion picture based on the castle, and maybe another Magic Castle someplace. It's going to be a family action-type picture, a kind of "Night at the Museum" [with] people stuck in the Castle. Because of the picture, Creative Artists Agency wants to add more visibility so the world will know what the castle is, to see it in markets it's never been exposed to before.

When we first started 50 years ago, my attorney said, "Oh, you don't have to trademark it, nobody could copy it." Many years later, a few people started copying it, so now we have trademarks on anything you can think of.

Does this mean Magic Castle video games?

That's one of the possibilities.

Why didn't you do this before?

I work very slowly. Right now one of my pet projects is trying to pitch a reality show based on restoring two old theaters [he can't say which ones] in downtown Los Angeles.

Haven't CGI and the Internet killed magic?

If anything it's helped it, particularly seeing old magicians on YouTube. That's really good stuff.

Magic is always going to have a head start because it's always new, always different. All the technical things today — the digital effects are incredible. That's helped live magic.

There are so many casinos, so many cruise ships that have magicians; there's something about seeing a magician live.

How different is magic now?

Think of the materials. In the old traveling days they'd have to have boxcars carrying these really heavy wooden boxes and draperies. Now you have things you can pack in one box.

[As for kinds of magic], Criss Angel and that younger crowd, they can't really do what they do on television for an audience that's watching closely. There's ways you can position a camera; they do it very well and more power to them, but a magician who's out there in front of an audience of 1,000 people can't be doing something they can't see.

Of course we've got trap doors and mirrors and all that, but there's a difference between camera trickery and stage trickery.

There are some people who just can't stand magic.

There are people who hate magic because they don't know how it's done and they don't want to be fooled. And then there are people who love to be fooled, and then there are people who will watch it for the sheer artistry. Magic can be very beautiful.

One thing we're seeing in new generations that have been brought up on rock concerts and television — they think nothing of talking in the middle of the show or standing up and yelling. (Not here, because we'll toss 'em out on their butts!) I think the audiences are calming down a little bit now, they understand it's nice to just watch a performer perform without yelling at him.

The Magic Castle is about the only place left where you have to wear a coat and tie. That's because we always thought this would be like a party at the turn of the century, for a multigazillionaire magician and his friends. You'd never think of going to a party like that in sneakers! We have people who say, "I don't even own a tie," and we say, "Well, here's one you can buy." Every year at the board meeting they have a chance to change the rules, but everybody likes the rules.

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